A Brazilian coronavirus variant that is feared could reinfect survivors is already in the UK, a leading scientist confirmed today.
Professor Wendy Barclay, from Imperial College London, also revealed there were two different types of the variant, and that only one had been spotted in Britain.
The virologist, who is part of a new Government-led research unit studying Covid mutations, said: ‘There are two different types of Brazilian variants. One of them has been detected [in the UK] and one of them has not.’
Professor Barclay did not reveal the differences between the two strains, but it’s believed both share mutations on their spike proteins, which make them more infectious and may help them get past immunity from vaccines and older versions of the virus.
It comes as fears are growing that Covid survivors may not be immune to the Brazilian variant, as scientists believe the mutation sparked an explosive second wave in the country’s vast state of Amazonas.
In the capital Manaus, situated in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, there have been reports of dead bodies having to be dumped in freezer trucks and patients being flown to different states due to a chronic shortage of oxygen and hospital beds.
It is the second time the city of 2million people has been ravaged by the disease after recording 100 deaths a day through spring. At that time drone images showed the digging of mass graves in a forest on the outskirts of the city.
The virus was so rife that some researchers believed Manaus had achieved ‘herd immunity’ after one study suggested more than 70 per cent of the population had been infected.
In the capital Manaus, situated in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, there have been reports of dead bodies having to be dumped in freezer trucks and patients being flown to different states due to a chronic shortage of oxygen and hospital beds
The highly-infectious Brazilian strain of Covid is behind an explosive second wave in the country’s vast state of Amazonas, scientists have warned (stock image)
All three of the mutated versions of the coronavirus found in recent weeks – the ones from Kent, South Africa and Brazil – have had a change on the spike protein of the virus called N501Y, which scientists say makes it better able to latch onto the body and spread
Meanwhile, a Brazilian nurse who fought off coronavirus in spring got reinfected with the country’s new variant five months later in October, with her symptoms being worse the second time.
Researchers say Manaus is particularly vulnerable to Covid because it has high levels of social deprivation, with workers living in crowded, multi-generational housing. It is also a free-trade zone and one of Brazil’s largest exporter cities, with frequent traffic from Europe and Asia.
In response to the new variant, Britain has banned all travel from South America, Portugal, Panama and Cape Verde in a bid to stop it from wreaking havoc in the UK. Officials here are already trying to bring a super-infectious variant, originally found in Kent, under control.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE BRAZIL VARIANT?
Name: B.1.1.248 or P.1
Date: Discovered in Tokyo, Japan, in four travellers arriving from Manaus, Brazil, on January 2.
Is it in the UK? Public health officials and scientists randomly sample around 1 in 10 coronavirus cases in the UK and they have not yet reported any cases of B.1.1.248, but this doesn’t rule it out completely.
Why should we care? The variant has the same spike protein mutation as the highly transmissible versions found in Kent and South Africa – named N501Y – which makes the spike better able to bind to receptors inside the body.
It has a third, less well-studied mutation called K417T, and the ramifications of this are still being researched.
What do the mutations do?
The N501Y mutation makes the spike protein better at binding to receptors in people’s bodies and therefore makes the virus more infectious.
Exactly how much more infectious it is remains to be seen, but scientists estimate the similar-looking variant in the UK is around 56 per cent more transmissible than its predecessor.
Even if the virus doesn’t appear to be more dangerous, its ability to spread faster and cause more infections will inevitably lead to a higher death rate.
Another key mutation in the variant, named E484K, is also on the spike protein and is present in the South African variant.
E484K may be associated with an ability to evade parts of the immune system called antibodies, researchers from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro said in a scientific paper published online.
However, there are multiple immune cells and substances involved in the destruction of coronavirus when it gets into the body so this may not translate to a difference in how people get infected or recover.
Will our vaccines still protect us?
There is no reason to believe that already-developed Covid vaccines will not protect against the variant.
The main and most concerning change to this version of the virus is its N501Y mutation.
Pfizer, the company that made the first vaccine to get approval for public use in the UK, has specifically tested its jab on viruses carrying this mutation in a lab after the variants emerged in the UK and South Africa.
They found that the vaccine worked just as well as it did on other variants and was able to ignore the change.
And, as the South African variant carries another of the major mutations on the Brazilian strain (E484K) and the Pfizer jab worked against that, too, it is likely that the new mutation would not affect vaccines.
The immunity developed by different types of vaccine is broadly similar, so if one of them is able to work against it, the others should as well.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Vaccines are still likely to be effective as a control measure if coverage rates are high and transmission is limited as far as possible.’
Researchers in Britain have told MailOnline it’s ‘entirely possible’ there are already cases in the UK but Public Health England said it had not yet detected any. Asked if the Brazilian strain was in the UK now, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: ‘Not as far as we are aware, I think, at this stage. There haven’t been any flights that I can see from the last week from Brazil, for example.’
It was the Japanese who originally spotted the Brazilian strain – called B.1.1.248 – and sounded the alarm about its potential dangers. Experts found the strain during routine tests of arriving passengers in Tokyo.
It was discovered in four Brazilians who landed at Haneda airport on January 2, all of whom had recently come from Manaus of other parts of Amazonas, which has a landmass six times the size of the UK.
The genetic mutation to the Brazilian strain, called E484K, changes the shape of the spike protein on the outside of the virus in a way that might make it less recognisable to an immune system trained to spot versions of the virus that don’t have the mutation, scientists say.
E484K is thought to change the virus in a way which makes it more difficult for antibodies to bind to it and prevent it entering the body.
Antibodies are a part of the immune system that can cripple viruses or attach to them and flag them up as targets for other killer white blood cells.
In this case, the part of the spike protein that gets changed is called the ‘receptor binding domain’, or the RBD, which the virus uses to latch onto the body.
Britain is now hoping to keep shut the variant out with its new South America travel ban which came into force at 4am this morning.
No-one who has been in any of the listed countries in the previous 10 days will be granted entry.
The measures are even wider than had been expected – although British and Irish nationals will not be subject to the total block, and must merely isolate for 10 days.
But scientists fear the measures have come too late. Dr Mike Tildesley, an epidemiologist at Warwick University, told BBC Breakfast: ‘We always have this issue with travel bans of course, that we’re always a little bit behind the curve.
‘With Covid we need to remember that when you develop symptoms you could have been infected up to a couple of weeks ago.
‘So it’s really important that these travel bans come in quickly so that we can prevent any risk.
‘My understanding is that there haven’t really been any flights coming from Brazil for about the past week, so hopefully the immediate travel ban should really minimise the risk.’
He added that scientists will know ‘in the next few days’ whether the ban has had ‘a significant effect’.
Dr Tildesley added that although viruses mutate ‘all the time’, this usually results in ‘milder forms’ emerging ‘in order to survive better’.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘If you have a very transmissible virus that also has a very high mortality rate then actually – and this is not meant to be flippant at all – but that’s not very good for the survival of the virus in a sense, if it kills its host.’
He added that if a vaccine-resistant variant emerges, jabs can be modified within ‘weeks rather than months’ to combat this.
Dr Tildesley said: ‘Over the longer term, it’s probably likely that we will get variants emerging where the vaccines won’t necessarily have the same effect.
‘And I will say that’s nothing to get massively panicked about – we do expect this, and this is what happens with flu all the time, that we have to develop a vaccine every year to protect against whatever virus strain is circulating.’
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, assured the public yesterday that there was no evidence any of the variants led to more severe disease or could get around the immune system.
He told ITV’s Peston show: ‘There’s no evidence at all with any of these variants that it makes the disease itself more severe.
‘So the changes that we’re seeing with the variants are largely around increased transmission.
‘[There’s] no evidence yet for the UK version that it makes a difference in terms of how the immune system recognises it, and if you’ve been exposed to the old variant or you’ve had a vaccine, it looks like that’s gonna work just as well with this new variant for the UK one.
‘The South African one and Brazilian one, we don’t know for sure. There’s a bit more of a risk that this might make a change to the way the immune system recognises it but we don’t know. Those experiments are underway.’
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that even if the mutation did affect the immune system it wasn’t likely to scupper existing vaccines completely.
He said: ‘We know where the mutations are. I think it’s fair to say we don’t have a good picture on how easily it spreads or how quickly it spreads.
‘Some of the changes, not all, are in the spike protein. The only one we have good data on in terms of the ability to spread is the Kent strain.
‘The changes to the spike mean that they could make it more difficult for antibodies to bind to. If there is an effect, and it’s a big if, I would assume it would reduce their [vaccines] efficacy not abolish it, it wouldn’t render it useless but it might not be effective.’
Fears grow over Brazilian Covid variant as 45-year-old nurse gets re-infected with mutation five months later and suffers WORSE symptoms
A Brazilian nurse who fought off coronavirus and got reinfected with the country’s new variant has sparked fears the mutation could hamper immunity.
The variant, which today spooked ministers into banning all flights to the UK from South America, carries a mutation that may make the virus able to get past immunity developed from older versions of the virus.
The unnamed 45-year-old fell ill with the new variant in October — five months after she recovered from Covid caused by an older strain, and her symptoms were worse the second time.
Researchers from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, a science institute in Rio de Janeiro, warned that mutations on the new variant could increase the risk of reinfection.
They wrote that ‘viral evolutions may favour reinfections’, claiming recently spotted variants ‘have raised concern on their potential impact in infectivity and immune escape’.
The Oswaldo Cruz Foundation paper — which hasn’t been peer-reviewed by fellow scientists — last week reported the case of a woman in Salvador, Brazil, who got Covid a second time amid an outbreak of the new variant.
She had been diagnosed with coronavirus for the first time on May 26, 2020, when she had diarrhoea, muscle aches and general weakness.
She took an asthma steroid called prednisone and recovered within three weeks without any long-lasting problems, the researchers said.
But in October, she became ill again with similar symptoms – diarrhoea, headache, coughing and a sore throat – and again tested positive for coronavirus.
Her symptoms got even worse than they had been the first time around and she developed breathing difficulties, shortness of breath, muscle pains and insomnia.
When the researchers compared her positive test samples from the two episodes they found that the latter one had mutations now known to be a key component of the Brazilian variant.
How Brazilians are OBLIVIOUS to Super-COVID sparking explosive second-wave sweeping through the Amazon and causing global alarm – as ‘Trump of the Tropics’ President Bolsonaro dismisses threat
Matt Roper in Brazil for MailOnline
Most Brazilians are oblivious to the highly contagious new coronavirus strain which has sparked an explosive second wave sweeping through their country and causing alarm around the world.
The Latin American nation passed 200,000 deaths from the pandemic earlier this week, the second highest toll worldwide.
Now in the midst of a second devastating wave, the country registered its highest daily average of Covid infections this week, with 54,784 confirmed cases on average per day – up 51 per cent on two weeks ago.
The emergence of a new mutation of the virus, believed to have originated in the northern jungle state of Amazonas, now threatens to overwhelm the country once more and lead to many more deaths.
The Brazilian strain, which hasn’t yet been classified as a new variant, was detected in four Japanese travellers who had recently returned from Brazil’s Amazonas state.
A man walks down an empty street in Manaus, Brazil on Thursday after it imposed an 11-hour curfew between 7pm and 6am due to the Covid-19 crisis
Hospitals and cemeteries have run out of capacity following a spike in Covid-19 cases
Far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has been blamed for allowing the crisis to get out of control after consistently downplaying the pandemic and describing Covid as a ‘little flu’.
The British Government announced it will ban flights from Brazil and a number of other South American countries, as well as Portugal, as fears mount that the new variant could be more contagious, and potentially more fatal, than other mutations that have emerged in South African and the UK.
But on the streets of some of Brazil’s biggest cities, Brazilians who spoke to MailOnline appeared oblivious to the danger, with many claiming they had no idea there was a new coronavirus strain on the rampage.
Analysis underway by the Brazilian Fiocruz scientific research centre points to the new variant originating in the northern Brazilian state, whose capital, Manaus, has been a hotspot for infections since the beginning of the pandemic.
The Latin American nation passed 200,000 deaths from the pandemic earlier this week, the second highest toll worldwide. Pictured: The curfew in Manaus
Now in the midst of a second devastating wave, the country registered its highest daily average of Covid infections this week, with 54,784 confirmed cases on average per day – up 51 per cent on two weeks ago
Health staff members walk through the corridors of the Getulio Vargas University Hospital, in Manaus, Brazil on Thursday
Scientists from the institution told Brazil’s UOL website it is likely the mutations increase the rate of transmission, and is likely the reason behind a new surge of infections in Amazonas.
The new variant is a mutation of the B.1.1.28 lineage of coronavirus which is present throughout Brazil, according to data, and is the dominant form in Amazonas, accounting for 47 per cent of samples collected between April and November.
According to researcher Felipe Naveco, from Fiocruz’s Amazonia centre, sequencing data by Japanese scientists shows the same mutations as analysis of virus samples taken from Amazonas conducted by a team from Sao Paulo University and Oxford University.
He said: ‘This variant is the B.1.1.28 with mutations on the spike protein, and two of them are very important. Similar mutations have already been associated with increased Covid transmission rates.
‘It’s a virus that has gone through a process of evolution, which makes us think that maybe it’s a new Brazilian variant.
‘These mutations are very worrying, and we need more time and analysis to really know how to might increase transmission.’
Brazil is in the midst of a second devastating wave, with the country registering its highest daily average of Covid infections this week, and 54,784 confirmed cases on average per day. Pictured: Health workers transport a patient at Getulio Vargas hospital, Manaus
He said he believed the new mutation ‘partly explains the explosion of cases here in Amazonas, where Covid is rampaging through both the populous capital and remote jungle towns’.
‘We also knew that the number of cases would increase because people weren’t practising social distancing.
‘There were protests here on 26 and 27 of December because the governor wanted to close down commerce, and there were New Year parties.
‘The health system in the state is very fragile, there are many factors in my view.’
Amazon’s state capital Manaus, a city of 2 million, was this week placed in a state of emergency for six months as hospitalisations passed the levels seen in the worst days of last year.
Hospitals this week ran out of oxygen, with new supplies having to be flown in by Brazilian Air Force jets.
Refrigerator trucks have once again been deployed to store bodies, while structures to hold 22,000 coffins in horizontal ‘drawers’ are hastily being constructed.
Manaus registered more hospitalisations in the first week of 2021 than in the whole month of December, with a record 1,524 people admitted to hospital last Saturday alone.
Brazilians have told MailOnline that they had no idea there was a new coronavirus strain on the rampage in the country. Pictured: Ana Claudia Fernandes, an Uber driver in Rio de Janeiro, blamed the government for failing to keep its people informed about the virus
Luciano Ferraz, a hairdresser from Porto Alegre, southern Brazil, said he didn’t know about the new variant of the virus, adding that no one was talking about it on the radio
The city has also registered more than 100 burials every day this week, with a record 144 on Sunday alone – the highest number since the start of the pandemic.
A court on Saturday forced the state government to shut non-essential businesses for 15 days as infections and deaths surge.
In Porto Alegre, southern Brazil, hairdresser Luciano Ferraz, said he didn’t know about the new variant of the virus.
He said: ‘I haven’t heard of that. Maybe I’ve overheard something like it, but no-one’s talking about it, not even on the radio.
‘If it’s true it’s very worrying. The original virus has already caused so much damage here. It’s going to be very difficult, I don’t think we’ll emerge from this anytime soon.
Delisandra Britto, 43, a shop keeper in Porto Alegre, was one of the few who said she had heard of the new variant, but said that not enough was being done to warn people about the dangers
Alex Countinho, 41, a porter from Rio de Janeiro, said: ‘I speak to people all day, and no-one has ever talked to me about a new strain of the virus’
In Manaus, northwestern Brazil, where there were haunting scenes last April of mass graves and corpses piled in refrigerator trucks, the health system is near to collapse again. Pictured: Cemetery workers carry the remains of 89-year-old Abilio Ribeiro, who died of the new coronavirus strain in Manaus on January 6
‘On a scale of one to ten of worry about Covid, I’m already on ten, even without a more dangerous strain around.’
Ana Claudia Fernandes, an Uber driver in Rio de Janeiro, blamed the government for failing to keep its people informed about the virus.
She said: ‘About a new variant, I don’t know what to say because I haven’t been given this information. The government never gives us any solid facts about the virus.
‘All I can say is that, now that I know this, I’m very frightened, very scared, and I’m asking myself how bad will things get now.
‘I’m fearful about the direction Brazil seems to be going, we don’t have a good government and they are making things worse, causing more people to die.’
Ms Fernandes, who became an Uber driver after losing other informal jobs because of the pandemic, said she also lost her brother and stepmother to Covid, while her father became very ill with the virus.
She said: ‘This lack of clarity or information from our government has made people comfortable with the virus.
‘People are still having parties, doing everything they want to do, because we have a president who makes their lives easy by saying that the virus isn’t that serious, that it’s just a ‘little flu’ and that we have to get on with life.
‘I never felt any kind of certainty about the information I was receiving from the government. But I began to see that this ‘little flu’ was killing a lot of people, including people I loved. It’s made me very confused and very scared.’
Alex Countinho, 41, a porter from Rio de Janeiro, said: ‘I speak to people all day, and no-one has ever talked to me about a new strain of the virus.
‘That’s news to everyone here. I think people will hear about it now though, but only because the flights have been banned. I’m not sure it will change the way people will behave though.
‘A lot of people are staying at home, even with the mixed messages from the government, for self-preservation. But those people who believe what the president says will keep having parties, not using masks, and keep filling up bars and restaurants.
‘If the virus is going to get more contagious then many more people are going to lose their lives, and those who survive are going to suffer even more. People are desperate here and the country has been brought to its knees.’
Delisandra Britto, 43, a shop keeper in Porto Alegre, was one of the few who said she had heard of the new variant, but said that not enough was being done to warn people about the dangers.
She said: ‘I’ve read about it, it’s very frightening. We haven’t been able to control the original coronavirus, and now we have a new one that’s even worse? It’s terrifying.
‘We’ve already suffered enough. Life is a long way from getting back to normal. We do our best to protect ourselves here in the shop but unfortunately not everybody wants to do the same, which puts us all at risk.
‘Most people don’t know about the new variant. I think it’s two things – lack of interest by the government to tell us about it, and a lack of interest on the part of the population to learn about it.’
Brazil has also average 993 deaths per day this week, a rise of 49 per cent compared to two weeks ago, while intensive care units in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are reportedly already 90 per cent full.